Planning your green vacation can be just as much fun as the actual holiday! Here are some tips and helpful resources.
By Wendy Priesnitz
There are many ways to make your vacation reflect your concern for the environment. A quick internet search will turn up hundreds of sustainable tourism organizations and companies. Start your trip planning by defining your own goals and needs, as well as your definition of green. Then ask lots of questions because there is a fair bit of questionable marketing being done in the name of eco-travel. Here are some ideas for planning your green vacation.
If You Must Go, Go Carbon Neutral
Selected as the New Oxford American Dictionary Word of the Year in 2006, “carbon neutral” has become an important part of our vocabularies. Increasing numbers of us are understanding the damage done by the greenhouse gases that are created by our getting from Point A to Point B.
Some travelers use carbon-offset programs to balance the impact of their travel. The best programs are those which fund cleaner, greener energy supplies from wind, solar, and other renewables. An increasing number of travel companies are offering carbon offsetting programs and many websites provide carbon use calculators.
Alternatives to Flying
One of the more ecologically friendly modes of long-distance travel is the train. Mark Smith, a rail travel fan from the UK, runs an informative website called The Man in Seat 61, which helps you travel by train or ferry. He compares the emissions of a round-trip journey from London to Paris. By air, it would take 3.5 hours and emit 244 kg of CO2, while by train it would take 2.75 hours and emit just 22 kg of CO2. Smith was awarded the 2006 First Choice Responsible Tourism Award for “the person who has made the greatest contribution of responsible tourism.” He feels that, especially in Europe, rail travel is comfortable and affordable. He points out that, “There is more to travel than the destination – it used to be called a journey!”
Aside from rail and water, your own two legs can provide an eco-friendly alternative to air. Consider making a bike tour the focus of your green vacation. Some locales – such as parts of Quebec, PEI, the Adirondacks in New York State, and in Europe, the Netherlands and Denmark – specialize in being bike-tour friendly. You can purchase group tour packages that include vans to transport your bike, and you if you get tired, between certain points along the way; they often also include B&B lodging, gourmet meals, and regional highlights such as wine tastings and site seeing. The website Bike Tours allows you to find and book trips with more than a hundred local bike tour companies in seventy countries.
Support the Locals
If you’re traveling outside your own area, spend locally while you’re there. Support independently-owned hotels, inns and B&Bs, rather than staying at the multinational chains. Eat at local restaurants, shop at markets, and use public transportation and/or take walking tours. In many cities you can rent bicycles as a healthy, fun and environmentally sound method of seeing the sites. Not only will you be supporting the local economy, you’ll be learning more about the place you’re visiting. Even though bargaining for the lowest price is assumed to be the custom in some areas, don’t get carried away; a few cents to you can mean a lot to a local artisan. And don’t forget to respect local customs by adapting your clothing so that you fit in.
Hostels Go Green
You might want to stay in hostels, which are a great place to meet other travelers and get a comfortable night’s sleep at an affordable price. And they’re not just for youth. Generally, they are open to people of all ages, although some give priority to young people when they’re near capacity. Many provide access for wheelchair users and some even accommodate pets. Many hostels, especially in Europe, are in charmingly historic buildings and big dormitories are becoming increasingly rare.
Many hostels are environmentally friendly. Hosteling International – which represents 90 Youth Hostel Associations in over 80 countries, operating 4,000+ hostels – has an eco policy that favors recycling; biking, car sharing and public transit use; energy efficiency; native plants landscaping and wild gardens; environmentally conscious purchasing; locally grown and organic food; environmental education and even renewable energy.
An increasing number of hostels are organizing a variety of tours and packages for their guests. Hosteling International’s website will give you some great trip ideas, whether it’s scuba diving in Malta, taking a mountain biking tour through a Belgian forest, or paragliding and climbing in Belgium.
If you prefer to stay in a hotel, the Green Hotels Association can recommend a member facility that adheres to its code of environmental conduct. In hotels, turn off lights and air conditioning when you leave the room. Take your own shampoo, leaving those wasteful little bottles unopened. If the hotel has an electronic check-out program, use it and save trees.
Leave Only Footprints
Getting off the beaten path is attractive to many who favor a green vacation. But no matter where you go, adhere to the ecotourism pledge to leave only footprints and take only photos. If you’re hiking, canoeing, camping, or otherwise spending time in wilderness areas, take everything out that you brought with you. Try to avoid the use of disposable plates, mug, toilet articles, canned drinks, and plastic bottles.
Be careful where you walk or drive (or allow your pet to roam) to make the least impact possible on the terrain. In many areas, the impact may be merely cosmetic, but you can also carelessly crush nesting birds, lichens, and other vegetation, or compact the soil.
While a blazing fire in the evening is a big part of camping for many people, you might think twice and substitute a stove instead on your green vacation. In many areas, firewood may be scarce and old branches and logs provide an important habitat for small creatures. And, of course, there’s always the danger of forest fire.
People who love camping usually hate recreational vehicles. However, despite their well-deserved gas-guzzling reputation, most RVers use fewer of some resources than the average household – less water, less heat, and less electricity. And even these high-end “campers” are trying to employ greener practices. Green RVers plan their trips so they stay in one location longer; once at their destination, they walk, bike, or paddle.
Others are converting their rigs to use bio-diesel and it’s not uncommon to see solar panels and wind generators attached to motorhomes or trailers. RV solar panel kits come in a range of sizes and will keep your RV batteries charged to operate lights and other appliances without the use of a polluting diesel generator or being plugged in to electrical hook-ups in parks.
One of the problems RVers can create for the environment relates to their choice of products used to treat waste effluent in their holding tanks. Camp Green, Canada is a national initiative created to encourage RVers to use non-toxic, biodegradable products for this purpose. It also raises awareness among campground owners of the economic and environmental benefits of declaring their dumping facilities chemical-free. There is a similar Green Camps Initiative based in California.
Stay at Home
Perhaps the most eco-friendly green vacation is the one you take by staying right at home! If you live in or near a major city, you might have access to a “green map” to help you explore earth-friendly destinations. The first green map was published in 1992 as a Green Apple Map for New York City. There are now about hundreds of green maps in over fifty countries around the world. Contact your local tourist information bureau for details or you can access them at the Green Maps website.
Whatever you decide to do for your green vacation, have fun!
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine, where an earlier version of this article was first published. She is a journalist and author with forty years of experience and twelve books to her name.